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In 1939, Boeing Aircraft of Canada’s (Boeing Canada) headquarter was located in Vancouver, British Columbia. They built a huge manufacturing factory on Sea Island beside the middle arm of the Fraser River to build aircrafts for the war effort.
Boeing Canada built 362 PBY flying boats and amphibians designed by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego and 16 British-designed Blackburn Shark torpedo aircrafts for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The RCAF called the PBY’s “Cansos”.
The Sea Island Boeing Canada plant was the only plant in Canada to build the Catalina PBY Flying Boat. The PBY-5A was the amphibious equivalent.(1)
Boeing Canada produced 55 Consolidated PBY-5A “Canso” amphibians for the RCAF and 300 PBY-5 and PBY-6 Catalina Flying Boats under the United States of America Navy (US Navy) designation of PB2B-1 and PB2B-2 for the US Navy and the British Empire Services. When first opened, the plant employed 175 people and had a payroll of $300,000 per year.
By 1944, the production of the 362 PBY Flying Boats was completed and Boeing Canada began manufacturing the mid-section of the fuselage, including the bomb bay area for the Superfortress (B-29) bomber. The payloads were trucked to Renton, Washington in the US where they were matched up to other pre-built sections for the final assembly. Over 1,000 B-29 bombers were assembled at the Renton plant.
Boeing employees received awards in a company-sponsored contest to name the last PBY to role off the Sea Island assembly line. The last two batches of PBY Catalinas built by Boeing (40 PB2B-1 and 67 PB2B-2) totalled 107 aircraft of which JZ841 was the last, hence the number 107 on the cowling, presumably.
In 1945, at its peak, the Sea Island Boeing Canada plant had 7,000 employees. Immediately after the surrender of the Empire of Japan (V-J Day) on August 14, 1945, Boeing closed the Sea Island plant. This sudden closure left stunned workers scrambling to find work.
Canso A 9759 plane - DND photo courtesy of the Shearwater Aviation Museum
David Hornell PB2B-2 plane - photo courtesy of the David Legg Collection
During WWII, if you were interested in working for the Boeing Canada Sea Island plant, you first went to an interview at the Boeing Canada office on West Georgia Street in Vancouver. If hired, you were fingerprinted for your identification card and told to buy coveralls, flat shoes or a sensible-type of Oxford shoes. Women had to wear kerchiefs to keep their hair from becoming tangled in the machinery. Boeing Canada did not pay for any of these.
One former Boeing Canada employee, interviewed was hired as a “gofer” in 1944 and remarked:
“I delivered radio parts to the ships (aircraft) and if the guys wanted nuts or bolts and other parts, I’d go for them, hence the term “gofer”. She said, “You needed good footwear to work on that huge plant cement floor … and of course the stores (shop) was located across the way, in the other building, up the stairs, so your feet were pretty sore by the end of the shift. I started at 40 cents/hour and finished at 80 cents/hour in Shop 63... I lived in Vancouver and had to transfer about five times before reaching Marpole to catch the Boeing bus. We called it the “cattle car”. We werent’ fortunate enough to obtain accommodation in the new Burkeville subdivision being built for Boeing employees as it was designed for employees with families.”
“Sometimes the Boeing workers were able to carpool with those that had cars... I worked 4 weeks of day shifts and then 4 weeks of afternoon shifts... Staggering the shifts helped to ease the traffic congestion when thousands of employees would try to enter or leave the plant at the same time... I worked 6 days per week. The shifts I recall: one from 7:15 to 3:30, the other from 8 to 4:30. The plant was open 7 days a week and Sunday was overtime, ... Boeing employees were only granted ½ hour lunches and at first, no breaks. The Union soon had that straightened out and workers were granted two 10-minute breaks per shift. Smokers had to go outside. There was a large cafeteria for those that didn’t pack their own lunch... On entering or leaving the big Boeing gate, you had to show your ID card. You also had to open your lunch box to show the security people that you were not carrying anything unauthorized out. Of course, we had to punch in and out on the time clocks too.”
Another former Boeing Canada employee described the “cattle car” as:
“a lumbering, converted 1941 HD Ford high-boy type flatdeck body, the 30-odd “bus” passengers sat up rather high and could actually see over the truck cab. Everyone referred to it as “the cattle car”.
Boeing's "cattle car" - photo courtesy of Bevin Jones
Interior of "cattle car" - photo courtesy of Bevin Jones
Many of the Boeing employees were women. As men went to war, women built airplanes. Boeing actively solicited women workers. Especially after the Americans joined the war in December 1941. Thousands of women, symbolized by "Rosie the Riveter"(2) took up the slack in the workforce and helped boost production. They became quite skilled and adapted quickly to the heavy work. The aircraft riveters became well-known and were called "Rosie Riveters".
These wonderful women worked in the various aircraft assembly plants all over the world. In Fort William, Ontario they worked on Hurricanes and Helldivers. In Montreal, Quebec, Canadian Vickers Ltd. had another PBY plant. Women aircraft workers everywhere worked very hard, coped with men's attitudes and the working conditions, but had fun.
Poster of Sea Island Rosie Riveters
Isobel Beveridge and 3 Rosie Riveters - photo courtesy Eileen Garcia
The Sea Island Boeing Canada plant also took on a contract from the US Navy to produce a parts catalogue of over 1000 pages. The US Navy Catalina parts catalogue was not used by the employees at Boeing Canada. It was strictly designed for American mechanics and parts depot clerks for ordering parts. When the contract was completed, the Production Illustration Department was closed down and most of the staff were either laid off or offered jobs in the factory.
Jack Nellist was a 16 year old draftsman when he joined the Production Illustration group in 1943. The art of production illustration had been developed at Boeing’s head office in Seattle. It was a method to more clearly depict the assembling of intricate aircraft parts to plant workers instead of learning to read engineering blueprints. Over 600 drawings were produced for the Catalina using this technique. A total of 362 aircrafts were built. Fifty-seven skilled artists made up this production illustration crew and their work is explained in detail in the Boeing Beam, Vol. 2, No.25, December 8, 1944 which included a photograph of the "Handbook Group".
(1) Ross, Leslie J., 1979, Corporation of the Township of Richmond. Richmond Child of the Fraser.
(2) (3) Jamieson, Roy, 1953, RCAF Station Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canso 9759 plane [digital image]. Retrieved from Shearwater Aviation Museum on November 20, 2017.
(4) Garcia, Eileen J., 2003, Aeda House. Beyond Jericho: Growing Up Blind and Resilient: The Story of Isabel Beveridge.
Sea Island Heritage Society
4191 Ferguson Road, Richmond, British Columbia
Canada V7B 1P3